Social Justice, Inclusion and Accountability

At Groundswell we talk a lot about social justice, food sovereignty, inclusion and equity. We participate in all sorts of community initiatives that share the vision of a more equitable food system. But are we really making any kind of difference, in the world or even within our own organization?

I have often claimed that, at Groundswell, “We are creating an integrated, multicultural social and economic support network for beginning farmers and market gardeners, one that brings together people from different economic backgrounds and cultures to learn from one another and to strengthen our local food system.”

But is this really happening? And who is holding us accountable to our vision?

Groundswell recently received a kind but firm kick-in-the-behind in the accountability department, causing us to take a hard look at ourselves and our commitment to social justice. Sadly, long-time Groundswell member Rafael Aponte resigned his staff position recently, expressing frustration that we are “unable to collectively put equity at the forefront of (our) work.” (For Rafa’s complete resignation letter, please scroll to the bottom of this blog post.)

Sad as I am to lose Rafa as a staff member, I choose to view the situation as an important opportunity for Groundswell. By being transparent about the issues he has raised, and how we respond over time, I hope that others can learn from our experience, and that collectively we can get past talking the talk, to walking the walk towards real equity and inclusion.

As an organization, we have struggled to achieve a shared understanding of what social justice, equity and inclusion really mean, and what they require of us. At various times in our 5-year history we’ve invested more or less energy in educating ourselves about food sovereignty, racism in the food system, and white privilege. We’ve had hard conversations, and we’ve had long stretches without those hard conversations.

Rafael now challenges us to figure out how to “not just engage but empower” the communities we try to serve. His specific recommendations are to:

  • Collect data and establish metrics to determine whether Groundswell’s programs and services achieve equity and deliver results to the audiences it has committed to serve.

  • Create internal policies, tools, and structures to train and ensure all staff are able to incorporate equity strategies into their work on the ground level.

  • Design and implement programs and services with input or participation of the groups for which those same programs and services are supposed to serve.

  • Solicit consultation from an outside organization that would provide guidance in establishing healthy communication across class, race, and gender between Groundswell, its members, and intended audiences.

  • Create a decision matrix for staff and board that allows for evaluation of current internal and external equity strategies.

I would add to these a recommendation that we establish an Accountability Team of community members and others who can really hold us accountable to our social justice goals, call us out when needed, and help guide us towards our vision of an equitable and resilient food system.

We look forward to sharing our progress – and our missteps – with you as we walk this path. We also invite you to share your thoughts, your experiences, and your suggestions with us. Thank you for contributing in this, and so many other ways.

Joanna Green, Director

Rafael will be spending the next couple of months closing out this season at his farm in Freeville, NY with the continued goal of achieving equity and food sovereignty through his work. He remains in communication with Groundswell and can be reached directly at

Rafael Aponte’s Letter of Resignation:


Dear Joanna and Friends,

Groundswell is an organization with tremendous potential; however, I have recently lost confidence in the ability of the organization to address the growing need for equity in our community. Please accept this letter as formal notification that I am resigning from my position as outreach coordinator with Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming, effective immediately. This has been an incredibly difficult decision because I admire and respect so much of the work Groundswell has been able to accomplish, but it falls short in this critical area.

Throughout my time with Groundswell, first as a member of the board and later as staff, I have been part of the ongoing efforts to create a vibrant, sustainable, local food community. While I am grateful for the many opportunities to work alongside extremely dedicated, talented, and hard-working individuals, I cannot continue to work within an organization that is unable to collectively put equity at the forefront of its work.

If Groundswell desires to remain true to the values and mission to which it ascribes itself, it will take the combined collaborative efforts of its leadership, staff, and all its constituents and not the work of a single individual. It is my hope that Groundswell can rise to the challenge with sustained effort to institutionalize a truly equitable framework that empowers its community and not merely engages it .

I count Groundswell as an important ally in the larger fabric of creating a just and sustainable food system and I hope to make this transition as straightforward as possible. Much gratitude to everyone I have had the opportunity to work with and I look forward to working with you to create an equitable food future.



Rafael Aponte